Tuesday, 30 September 2008

mouthing poetry

Shirley Dent of the Institute of Ideas and co-author of RADICAL BLAKE has kindly agreed to be an advisor on if:book's Songs of Imagination & Digitisation project and sends news of this very relevant event:


7 October, 7pm-9pm at Vibe Live

A new generation of poets seems to be reclaiming poetry as a political, not simply cultural, ‘way of happening’. And often it is explicitly associated with calls for political change, from Poets Against War to last year’s Love Poetry Hate Racism events. Is poetry reclaiming its radical roots? Or is this just self-flattery, with too many modern bards mouthing platitudes? Are we neglecting the genuine potential of great poetry to subvert and unsettle the way we see the world, even if as Auden said, it ‘makes nothing happen’?

These questions about poetry and politics today will be tackled by a panel of poets, critics and political journalists, as well as the famously lively Vibe Live Battle Satellite audience http://www.newstatesman.com/society/2008/08/folk-music-british-today. Whether poetry lovers or political animals (or both!) we encourage you to come along and join in the debate and banter with the panel, who include:

Brendan O'Neill
editor, spiked; weekly blogger Comment is Free; regular writer for New Statesman, Christian Science Monitor and BBC News website

Todd Swift

international poetry activist, anthologist, editor, and poet; editor of the best-selling British poetry CD, Life Lines: poets for Oxfam.

Imogen Robertson

novelist, poet and reviewer; author, Instruments of Darkness (forthcoming).

Chris McCabe

poet and joint librarian, The Poetry Library; author, Zeppelins

Paul Dunn

assistant editor, Opinion, The Times; regular contributor, Times Books

Dr Gary Day

fellow, Royal Society of Arts; Secretary, British Society of Eighteenth Century Studies; author, Eighteenth Century Literature and Culture

David Bowden

poet and playwright, MA Creative Writing student

With chair:

Dr Shirley Dent

communications director, Institute of Ideas; producer Battle Satellites programme, 2008; development editor, Culture Wars; columnist at Guardian Unlimited Arts; co-author Radical Blake

Tickets are available here:


dirty books

Bookkake, at http://bookkake.com/, is James booktwo Bridle's seductive new publishing initiative, with a neat teasing home page and a good list of out of copyright erotica to kick it off.

When at Booktrust I got excited about plans for a project called Booklust which would open up debate about sex in books. It seemed a good way to reach out to VERY different kinds of readers and could promote an amazing range of good fiction. The response from colleagues at the time was a simple, "no way!", but now I no longer work with the organisation that gives books to babies, perhaps perhaps perhaps...

Sunday, 28 September 2008

planet poetry

Tim Regan of Microsoft has some ideas for ways of improving the Poetry Archive's site which it seems a good idea to note here as the poetry world looks at how best to use new media:

"Firstly I want to be ably to tag the readings - even if it’s something simple like an “add to favourites” but a more complex arbitrary tag would be great. This might be achieved using external services like delicious. For example one could imagine audio engineers being interested in tagging all the recordings produced by Richard Carrington, or listeners tagging aspects of the reading itself (slow, dry, romantic, …). It’s impossible to second guess what categories such folksonomies would produce, but I bet they’d be interesting and useful.

Secondly I’d want the public to be able to add their own recordings. It is fascinating to hear poets read their own work but theirs are not the definitive recordings. Just this weekend a presenter on Radio 3 was commenting that the recordings of Stravinsky conducting his own works are not the best interpretations of the pieces, and I expect that the same is true of poetry. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear the same poem read by the poet, other famous voices, and a host of people who just enjoy it?

Thirdly, and perhaps most extravagantly, I think this might be a great place to re-use Tom Coates and Tristan Ferne’s project Annotatable Audio / Find Listen Label, an idea I’ve long wanted to rebuild. Since discussion and comparisons of different readings of the same poems would sometimes look at particular lines and the meaning implied by the reader a wiki that allowed listeners to narrow in on fragments of the audio to annotate and discuss them would be ideal."

Friday, 26 September 2008

It's been a good week for hearing from people doing interesting work. In fact I'm feeling quite overwhelmed by the richness of the new world I've arrived in, digital convert as I am.

Fee contacted me from Australia, interested in if:book's work and telling me about her work:

"Eight years ago I launched an ultra-short story project and dare I say, a new genre of literature: the-phone-book.com, so called because it quite literally turned your mobile phone into a book. As producing artists the fascination was in taking a technical challenge (max 150 words of text to a WAP page) and turning it into a creative limitation for 'the talent'. With little funding behind us promotion was viral; even back in 2000 this was enormously successful; we received thousands of stories each quarter from all sectors. People who didn't consider themselves writers thought 'hang on, I could do that'. Teachers used the model in creative writing classrooms and sent in whole rooms-worth of submissions.

Writers loved both the innovation and skill required to craft the perfect 150 word, 50 word or 150 character story, as well as the delight of receiving a cheque for their labours on publication. It ran quarterly for 3 years with a total of 935 stories written by 330 writers from 24 countries with a web site containing both text and audio recordings of each work and a WAP site with just the text versions.

Offshoots into the 'physical world' included four mini anthologies, a 3 disc CD of recordings, an interactive audio installation and a DJ scratch battle tool. It can currently be found in its third content management design at

That project spawned a company, the-phone-book Limited, which is sadly now being shut down and all the projects archived (I've now moved to Australia to continue the mobile legacy with an ongoing partner, the Australian Network for Art & Technology). But before we closed we had educated a new generation of mobile content producers and ruffled a few traditional publisher feathers en route.
In 2006 the inaugural Manchester Literature Festival commissioned us to develop a new, live-literature project for their festival.

The Burgess Project was the result, a live-literature promenade performance with new local writing inspired by the life and work of Anthony Burgess. Narratives were delivered as live spoken word and performance poetry, two-way text messaging, bluetooth broadcasting, VJ remixing, filmed storytelling, public screen intervention and a good old sing-along. You can see the blog and the trailer for the accompanying doco/film at

I'd heard about this excellent project from Chris Gribble, now at New Writing Partnership in Norwich, so it's good to find out more.

Then Jay emailed me about his Loose-Fish Project: "using the conceits of ARGs as a platform for adapting and updating classic literature. The first piece was a sci-fi adaptation of a Herman Melville short story, written for and published via Twitter <www.goodcaptain.com>. The current piece is a modernization of Spoon River Anthology, published as a group city blog, in partnership with Metroblogging <http://spoonriver.metblogs.com>"

And via Tim Regan's website I found Book Art All-Stars and the photos of book art reproduced here. O, what a web we weave!

forever young?

The other night I spoke at an event on Digital Publishing Skills organised by the Society of Young Publishers, on a panel with Nicholas Blake (Editorial Manager, Picador and Digital), and Ros Kindersley (Managing Director, JFL Search & Selection). Knowing nothing about career opportunities in digital publishing, I instead talked about how the Sony Reader seems to win over the booklovers on contact, how useless it is for the kind of networked book that excite us at if:book london and usa, and how I'm not convinced that commercial publishing companies will prove the best people to curate these new kinds of cultural assemblages. The event was blogged about generously by one member of the audience, but I don't remember being quite as ferocious about the trade as she suggests. Afterwards a queue of young publishers formed to sample my eReader.

Actually I'm discovering the Sony's flaws: too easy to lose your place, involves clicking through too many menus to find the page again, no chance to make notes or network with other readers - and I do wish it lit up for night reading. Luckily I can use my iTouch and Stanza app. in bed. Meanwhile Anna has declared her love of Vronsky to her husband, Kitty has befriended Varenka and I'm on page 587 of 2134 of digi-Karenin, which is an experience happening to me, not a possession to peruse and put on a shelf.

The future of publishing belongs to those who can think clearly enough about what really matters about books beyond their binding, and so can think afresh about what the 'look and feel' of real future books should be.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

fax appreciation soc?

There's an interesting blog post in the Guardian about the state of e-literature, written by Andrew Mannix of 3AM who asks if e-literature, by which he means born digital fiction and poetry, is dying as an artform as conventional publishing moves into the download.

He writes: "When I first ventured online, the internet struck me as the last word in literary experimentation. I was in good company. For Kathy Acker, and other pioneers who were already pushing the envelope on papyrus, cyberspace (copyright William Gibson) was truly the final frontier.

The very first novel to be serialised online - Douglas Anthony Cooper's Delirium (1994) - made full use of the new medium by allowing readers to navigate between four parallel plotlines. Geoff Ryman's 253, first posted in 1996, became an instant hypertext classic. A year later, Mark Amerika's Grammatron transcended the fledgling genre by turning it into a multimedia extravaganza. This, I believe, was a crucial turning point. The brief alliance between literati and digerati was severed: groundbreaking electronic fiction would now be subsumed into the art world or relegated to the academic margins."

cory doctorow - wired for words

There have been massive changes in technology and society since then. The poets of hypertext and storytellers of flash make work with software and for devices that are being constantly updated, the comfy, culty corners of cyberspace have been flooded by the tidal wave of the mainstream. Now the page writers are being uploaded to the cloud of digital literature. And so it gets harder to seperate e-life from the rest of reality.

Remember when fax machines seemed magical and people stood above them in offices watching documents emerge? A poet who then only wrote work for the fax would look way out of date by now, but having focused on the particular affordances of that gadget such a writer is likely to have moved with the times and seized on each new gizmo since. Having said that, there's no doubt a fax poetry appreciation society somewhere on the web - I don't dare google it to check.

Monday, 22 September 2008

this world is a world of imagination & digitisation

On National Poetry Day 2008 if:book, the new charity exploring the future of the book in the digital age, is launching an exciting experiment in reading and writing, supported by Arts Council England. Over the next six months I will be working with artist and web designer Toni Lebusque, project manager and film maker Sasha Hoare and a team of inspired people to create an illuminated book online, containing the poetry of William Blake, new writing, art and song inspired by Blake’s work, and the voices of many readers as they debate some of Blake’s key concerns and their relevance in the digital age.

Why Blake? Well, just imagine what William Blake’s blog would look like. Think what this radical, visionary maker and publisher of multimedia books would have made of the web.

I came across Songs of Innocence & Experience as a teenager, before teachers could convince me he was difficult. My great grandfather was a Blake scholar, and I found reproductions of the illuminated books on my grandmother’s shelves; they soon inspired me to churn out epic poems of mythical worlds, to write them out neat in an exercise book and embellish them with crayons and felt tip pens. ‘This is a world of Imagination & Vision’ he wrote, which I took to mean, ‘Go for it!’

Blake has been an inspiration to generations of real artists too, from Allen Ginsbrg to Jah Wobble, a source of Imagination and Vision to all kinds of readers, yet he’s also been colonized by the academics, judged obscure on one hand, nuts on the other.

Blake railed against the treatment of Chimney Sweepers and working Londoners locked in the mind forg’d manacles of man; he conjured up vivid images of nature enhanced by symbolism and transformed by imagination; he celebrated the importance of freedom in play for children. How would he react to London now, to the digital printshop, the sweatshop and call centre, the lack of spaces for kids to roam except online? What would Blake build in Second Life’s green and pleasant land? And what digital tools might he use to make what kind of books?

Bob Stein, founder of the New York based Institute for the Future of the Book, is one of those who has talked of a new kind of curatorial role involved in the publishing of tomorrow; in his Unified Theory of Publishing he writes:

“far from becoming obsolete, publishers and editors in the networked era have a crucial role to play. The editor of the future is increasingly a producer, a role that includes signing up projects and overseeing all elements of production and distribution, and that of course includes building and nurturing communities of various demographics, size, and shape. Successful publishers will build brands around curatorial and community building know-how AND be really good at designing and developing the robust technical infrastructures that underlie a complex range of user experiences.”

I agree completely, but I’m not convinced that traditional publishing companies are best placed to take on this role. I’ve spent many years working with literature organisations like the Poetry Society and Booktrust, alongside professional workers with reader development projects in libraries and the community; our trade is the creation and execution of projects which bring writers and readers together, commissioning new work for specific settings. A good arts festival sparks conversations around the themes it explores and the events it makes happen.
The Poetry Places scheme we ran at the Poetry Society in the 1990s involved residencies, workshops, performances in all kinds of venues, and the creation of poems to be engraved into a public space, proclaimed at an event, used as signage in parks, zoos and estates…

People usually classified as ‘arts administrators’ are orchestrating interactions that are much more akin to Bob’s concept of the curator of the networked book than publishers who seem to find it hard to see much beyond a downloadable replica of their traditional product.

Songs of Imagination & Digitisation will involve working with a range of those people, commissioning new writing and art, providing incentives for new voices to submit work and for readers to give us their ideas. We will mingle film, text and image, reader response and author interviews – and once we’ve gathered enough ingredients on our blog we hope to transmute them into something that feels like a proper, substantial, networked book.

So many web projects go encyclopaedic and neverending. The book of the future will be linked to a community, open to revision and extension, but also bounded in a meaningful way, a satisfying artistic entity, porous but not pointless.

if:book kicks off this project on National Poetry Day. We’ve invited if:book friends and associates including filmmaker Sasha Hoare, digi-radical-pundit Bill Thompson, writer Lisa Gee to the Poetry CafĂ© where actor Toby Jones (soon to be seen in Oliver Stone’s Bush biopic playing Karl Rove), will read Blake’s poems, Toni will show her Call Centre Diaries, and we’ll discuss WORK. (It's an invite only event, but let me know if you're interested).

In the morning some of us will wander round Covent Garden and Soho, where Blake was born, and talk to people about their working lives. We’ll film them reading lines from Blake, then go and drink tea while Toby reads us poems and we respond to them in doodles, written words and conversation.

And that day we will release into the wild a laptop loaded up with Blake’s work. For the next five months it will be passed from person to person, each one recording their responses, and emailing them to the Songsofimaginationanddigitisation.net blog

Over the next six month’s we’ll take a psychogeographical walk to Blake’s house in South Molton Street to discuss the city, gather at the Museum of Gardening near Hercules Buildings in Lambeth where Mr & Mrs Blake naked played Adam and Eve – allegedly. We’ll go to the Sassoon Gallery near Peckham Rye where young William saw angels in the branches of trees, and discuss the innocence and experiences of childhood then and now. We will be commissioning some writers, artists and musicians, offering eReaders and iTouches to others who contribute. We hope to build an international community of readers around our blog of the project’s progress, www.songsofimaginationanddigitisation.com, including students at all levels who have Blake as a set text. We want the Songs to be a springboard into all kinds of reading.

So – Tell us what you think of this Idea; Bookmark, RSS and Del.icio.us us; Send us your Blake related Poems, Stories, Photographs and Drawings; Together Let Us Sing Songs of Imagination & Digitisation!

Sunday, 21 September 2008

small wonderings

Sara Lloyd, Head of Digital Publishing at Pan Macmillan, authors Kate Pullinger Naomi Alderman and I were suffering somewhat from futureofthebook overload, but on friday night my panelists did a fantastic job of entertaining an interested audience at Small Wonder, the perfectly formed festival of the short story now in its fifth year at Charleston, once home of Virginia Woolf. It was exciting that we all felt on the same e-inked page: interested in the eReaders as a new means to read conventional books, but more inspired by the possibilities of new kinds of literature which exploits in the future. I've never been entirely convinced that I want as a reader to be able to decide the fate of the characters in the book I'm reading, but Naomi articulated very well the thrill for her of being part of the plot.

When an audience member suggested that on-screen reading might be anti-social and stop personal interaction, the panel rose as one to argue back. Naomi talked about friends who had met their partners in the midst of Alternate Reality Games and through fan fiction sites. What a thought - imagine falling in love with someone you met in Middlemarch or... well, what book would you choose?

Friday, 19 September 2008

flickering campfires

A seriously important link, thanks once again to Mr Furtado, to an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education in the US: http://chronicle.com/free/v55/i04/04b01001.htm
Online Literacy Is a Lesser Kind - Slow reading counterbalances Web skimming
by Mark Bauerlein.

"When Jakob Nielsen, a Web researcher, tested 232 people for how they read pages on screens, a curious disposition emerged. Dubbed by The New York Times "the guru of Web page 'usability,'" Nielsen has gauged user habits and screen experiences for years, charting people's online navigations and aims, using eye-tracking tools to map how vision moves and rests. In this study, he found that people took in hundreds of pages "in a pattern that's very different from what you learned in school." It looks like a capital letter F...."

The article concludes:

"We must recognize that screen scanning is but one kind of reading, a lesser one, and that it conspires against certain intellectual habits requisite to liberal-arts learning. The inclination to read a huge Victorian novel, the capacity to untangle a metaphor in a line of verse, the desire to study and emulate a distant historical figure, the urge to ponder a concept such as Heidegger's ontic-ontological difference over and over and around and around until it breaks through as a transformative insight — those dispositions melt away with every 100 hours of browsing, blogging, IMing, Twittering, and Facebooking. The shape and tempo of online texts differ so much from academic texts that e-learning initiatives in college classrooms can't bridge them. Screen reading is a mind-set, and we should accept its variance from academic thinking. Nielsen concisely outlines the difference: "I continue to believe in the linear, author-driven narrative for educational purposes. I just don't believe the Web is optimal for delivering this experience. Instead, let's praise old narrative forms like books and sitting around a flickering campfire — or its modern-day counterpart, the PowerPoint projector," he says. "We should accept that the Web is too fast-paced for big-picture learning. No problem; we have other media, and each has its strengths. At the same time, the Web is perfect for narrow, just-in-time learning of information nuggets — so long as the learner already has the conceptual framework in place to make sense of the facts.""

But you probably didn't actually read that extract, just scanned it for key words, your eyes passing over it in an F shape apparently. Click on the link and then print out the rest. I'll certainly be re-reading this as we prepare for our New Ways with Words project to make digital literature resources for schools. Meanwhile things are moving too fast to make lasting generalisations about what the web is or isn't good for, as technology and our relationship to it evolve.

Illustration: Our roving reporter, Overleaf Paperclip, drops in at the Snowbookshop in Second Life in search of linear narrative

Thursday, 18 September 2008

words unbound

I've just been trying out the audio book given us in our lucky bags at the National Year of Reading conference last week. I love the three speeds. The reader's words are magically squidged up so that she speaks faster or slower but at the same pitch, without the squeaky helium effect.

Jean Gralley has sent me this link to another flash animation of hers about the digital possibilities for picture books: http://jeangralley.com/books_unbound/

I'm still loving reading on my Sony Reader, still haven't purchased a book for it and am pondering how different it feels to own an object which sits on my shelf as opposed to buying a download which I then inject into my brain through reading. The book becomes an experience rather than an object - which seems quite healthy to me.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

the big moving picture

When I was still Director of Booktrust we launched The Big Picture, a campaign to promote more conventional picture books for children which has been very successful in convincing publishers and the trade to promote the best illustrated books around.

A bit of random twittersearching led me to this piece of advocacy on behalf of digital children's picture books by Jean Gralley, illustrator - and twitterer.

And writer Joe Dunthorne has sent us details of an amazing sounding event:

"I thought you (and any other FotB crew) might be interested in an event I'm involved with, on the 30th October at the Bethnal Green Working Men's Club. It's called Infinite Lives and is a night of literature influenced by video games.

I'll be reading a choose-your-own-adventure type story based loosely on the text adventure games of old, with the audience shouting out how they want the character to behave.

There'll be songs about Donkey Kong, sonnets about the Street Fighter characters, and an argument for why computer game heros are more valuable and relevent common reference points than the figures of Greek mythology.

And other ways to alienate most of the audience.

If there's anyone else you can think who might be interested in this, please let them know."

So here I am telling you, dear Bookfutures reader! More details at joedunthorne.com

Monday, 15 September 2008

saline solution

Salt Publishing have launched a good looking on-line journal which is worth an explore, edited by the excellent and energetic Jane Holland. No sign of much new media experimentation, but good words online none the less.



The lack of colour and connectedness on the new e-Reader devises makes the iPhone and iTouch look very desirable as a platform for downloadable multimedia fiction, but it seems Apple are proving to be secretive and cranky gatekeepers of the Apps Store, (where you can download books, games and gizmos, made by non-Apple developers), sparking worries that they could turn against independent initiatives if they got serious about the book market themselves.

This could be one of those web-fests of rumour-mongering that Tim Berners-Lee has been worrying about recently, but TeleRead's take on this is worth perusing

library of everything

Thanks to Fiona O'Brien for pointing out this vision of futurelibraries from Brewster Kahle at TED.com

banks crashing books buckling...

Read all about it! New York magazine on the death of publishing!

"The demise of publishing has been predicted since the days of Gutenberg. But for most of the past century—through wars and depressions—the business of books has jogged along at a steady pace. It’s one of the main (some would say only) advantages of working in a “mature” industry: no unsustainable highs, no devastating lows. A stoic calm, peppered with a bit of gallows humor, prevailed in the industry.

Survey New York’s oldest culture industry this season, however, and you won’t find many stoics. What you will find are prophets of doom, Cassandras in blazers and black dresses arguing at elegant lunches over What Is to Be Done. Even best-selling publishers and agents fresh from seven-figure deals worry about what’s coming next. Two, five years from now—who knows? Life moves fast in the waning era of print; publishing doesn’t."

Sunday, 14 September 2008

sunday smile

The Future of Books special feature in the Independent on Sunday today is well worth reading - Sue Thomas of DMU, Jeremy at Penguin, oh and and if:book!


and then this on the "bestsellers of tomorrow":


In the same magazine John Walsh asserts that nobody will ever read Tolstoy on an e-Reader. By chance I'm three hundred pages into Anna Karenina on mine and enjoying it immensely. Sorry, John.

Oh and did I mention Suzy Feay, Literary Editor of IOS, calls Lost Tim "A jeu d'esprit, but also, just possibly, the future of fiction." ??

Friday, 12 September 2008

moving pictures

Two videos produced by the IOCT and featuring if:book associates, the first from the final panel at the NLab conference on social networking...

NLab Social Networks Conference 2008 - Panel Discussion from IOCT on Vimeo.

...the second is the salon for students on the MA in Creative Writing and New Media at De Montfort and includes Toni Lebusque showing her work in SOPHIE.

IOCT Salon: Creative Writing and New Media Showcase, 18 June 2008 from IOCT on Vimeo.

killer appearances

In Guardian Books in July Naomi Alderman wrote: "What's most exciting about ebooks is not what they can do at the moment but what they may do in the future. The iLiad can connect to the internet: imagine reading Middlemarch and, at a touch of a button, being able to look at images of the same paintings and sculptures Dorothea looks at in Rome or, for academics, being able to see links to all articles which reference the passage you're reading.

Works written specially for the ebook reader are an even more exciting prospect. A piece of 'ebook native' fiction may allow you to hear the birdsong while reading a romantic outdoor scene, or may automatically subscribe you to a fictional newspaper mentioned in a crime thriller. Some will consider such things gimmicky and a threat to 'proper' reading, but different kinds of text can co-exist. Audiobooks haven't killed the printed word, television hasn't killed radio. What we're seeing isn't the death of the book, but the creation of a new art form.

That form is still in its infancy, but as a novelist I'm excited by the creative opportunities it will bring. Meanwhile, as a reader, I'm simply excited by the possibility of regaining some floorspace. The e-reader will never completely replace paper books, but it's got an awful lot to recommend it."

Naomi will be on the panel for our discussion at the Small Wonder Festival on the 19th September along with Sara Lloyd of Pan Macmillan and author of an influential manifesto on digital publishing to be found on the Digitalist blog, plus Kate Pullinger who expressed her depression at the site of the grey screened, wi-fi-less, retro tome-shaped Sony Reader at the if:bookgroup this week. Be there or be square!

You can book tickets by phoning 01273 709709.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

bob stein's unified field theory of publishing in the networked era

The whole of Bob's fascinating paper can be found at www.futureofthebook.org/blog, the blog of the Institute for the Future of the Book, but here's the beginning to whet your appetite:

The following is a set of notes, written over several months, in an attempt to weave together a number of ideas that have emerged in the course of the institute's work. I'm hoping for a lot of feedback. If there's enough interest, we'll put this into CommentPress so that the discussion can be more extensive than the blog's comment field.


I’ve been exploring the potential of “new media” for nearly thirty years. There was an important aha moment early on when I was trying to understand the essential nature of books as a medium. The breakthrough came when i stopped thinking about the physical form or content of books and focused instead on how they are used. At that time print was unique compared to other media, in terms of giving its users complete control of the sequence and pace at which they accessed the contents. The ability to re-read a paragraph until its understood, to flip back and forth almost instantly between passages, to stop and write in the margins, or just think — this affordance of reflection (in a relatively inexpensive portable package) was the key to understanding why books have been such a powerful vehicle for moving ideas across space and time. I started calling books user-driven media — in contrast to movies, radio, and television, which at the time were producer-driven. Once microprocessors were integrated into audio and video devices, I reasoned, this distinction would disappear. However — and this is crucial — back in 1981 I also reasoned that its permanence was another important defining aspect of a book. The book of the future would be just like the book of the past, except that it might contain audio and video on its frozen "pages." This was the videodisc/cdrom era of electronic publishing.

The emergence of the web turned this vision of the book of the future as a solid, albeit multimedia object completely upside down and inside out. Multimedia is engaging, especially in a format that encourages reflection, but locating discourse inside of a dynamic network promises even more profound changes Reading and writing have always been social activities, but that fact tends to be obscured by the medium of print. We grew up with images of the solitary reader curled up in a chair or under a tree and the writer alone in his garret. The most important thing my colleagues and I have learned during our experiments with networked books over the past few years is that as discourse moves off the page onto the network, the social aspects are revealed in sometimes startling clarity. These exchanges move from background to foreground, a transition that has dramatic implications.


I haven’t published anything for nearly twelve years because, frankly, I didn't have a model that made any sense to me. One day when I was walking around the streets of London I suddenly I realized I did have a model. I jokingly labeled my little conceptual breakthrough "a unified field theory of publishing," but the more I think about it, the more apt that sounds, because getting here has involved understanding how a number of different aspects both compliment and contradict each other to make up a dynamic whole. I’m excited about this because for the first time the whole hangs together for me. I hope it will for you too. if not, please say where the model breaks, or which parts need deepening, fixing or wholesale reconsideration.

key questions a unified field theory has to answer:

* What are the characteristics of a successful author in the era of the digital network?
* Ditto for readers: how do you account for the range of behaviors that comprise reading in the era of the digital network?
* What is the role of the publisher and the editor?
* What is the relationship between the professional (author) and the amateur (reader)?
* Do the answers to 1–4 afford a viable economic model?

Now read on!

virtually creative coffee mornings

The Creative Coffee events are interesting gatherings of people, much more relaxed and less male dominated than this otherwise fun machinima representation suggests.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

national year of pretending we don't read on screens?

I'm at the National Year of Reading event at the South Bank today, hosted by Michael Portillo. (What a sign of the political times that a Government funded event chooses him as presenter - he's done a good job of it though.)

There's a lot of excellent work going on which is being showcased today, including the wondrous Bookstart scheme and all its variants for older ages, an amazing cornerstone of our national cultural health which I still think deserves more recognition.

But ten years ago, when the first Year of Reading took place, the written word still lived mostly on the page, images were on screen. Since then there's been a revolution in reading and writing: now the focal point of all our reading lives is the networked screen. And yet promoters of reading still speak as if the book is real reading and the web something we might need to use to woo youth.

I put this point to David Bell, Permanent Secretary for the DSFS whose talk was called 'The Next Chapter'. In reply he said the new e-Readers made him feel like a fuddyduddy and I must be talking about education where IT was all very well but you had to teach basic literacy skills first. In other words he just didn't get what I was on about - though many others did, and expressed disappointment in his non-response.

He clearly loves books and so do I, but I'll bet he will spend more time today reading off a computer screen than off a page, will write emails rather than letters and might even watch some TV too, and if he doesn't google, his staff and family certainly do and he benefits from the results.

Doesn't it become so much easier to promote literacy as a vital life skill if we all recognise the role of the digital in our lives and see the importance of bedtime reading, literature and libraries in relation to this instead of in opposition?

The revolution in creative reading and writing on the web has been profound, deserves celebrating and then analysing carefully to see exactly what it's impact has been.

Having moved from running Booktrust to if:book, I would say this sort of thing wouldn't I, but over the last few days it's dawning on me afresh how much these ideas still need to be heard.

Meanwhile I've found myself starting to read Anna Karenin on my e-Reader and, somewhat to my surprise, I'm hooked - forgetting about the device and getting immersed in the story - it really does feel easier to focus on each line when it's in big, crisp text, like a cleaned up print of an old movie.

But I keep being interrupted from my reading by encounters with interesting people.
Bill Thompson of Digital Planet yesterday, Tim Wright of XTP today, and Children's Laureate Michael Rosen too - he was a speaker at the Year of Reading event so that doesn't really count. And I've talked to all of them about our Songs of Imagination and Digitisation project which I'm getting very excited about. Watch this space.

Finally, welcome to Jess and June, our first two followers. To follow in their footsteps click the little follower widget in the sidebar, folks.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008


I found these in a shop today and had to have them.

was that really it?

Here are some photos from the mingling bit of a fascinating and enjoyable evening at Random House last night, who kindly provided space for our first if:bookgroup of the autumn.

The group included writers Kate Pullinger and Naomi Alderman, (Naomi's book Disobedience was our top summer read on holiday this year, by the way); people from Pan Macmillan and Random House – including Jonathan Davis who kindly organised the room and refreshments; Literature organisations including Spread the Word, PBS, Planet Poetry and the National Literacy Trust, and then some fascinating others with more digital connections: Tim Regan from Microsoft research, Bridget Mackenzie, of Flow Associates, and Mecca Ibrahim of moo.com who had blogged about the event before I woke up this morning on her amazing underground blog.

The theme:'Is This Really It?' i.e. the long awaited arrival of digital reading.

Kate P expressed her disappointment in the Sony Reader, a retro object which reverts to black and white (or grey) text in leather binding specifically to attract those trad booklovers who express such horror at the idea of reading on screens. They'll take one look at this, I predict, and decide it's fab, because these machines do provide crisp fonts and re-sizeable type to draw the reader in. What they're no use for are multi-media experimentation. Naomi likes her iRex which has wi-fi and tablet-esque scribble pad facility. The question for publishers is whether large numbers will be prepared to pay paperback prices to download new books to their gizmos, and I'm not sure what I think on that score. I like buying songs from iTunes even though I know I could probably find them for free somewhere, but would I rather buy a glossy covered wadge of paper or a grey/black byte of digital? Hmm... I don't know yet.

For writers the question is can they earn a living somehow and get their work read.
Few authors can live off their royalties so all are used to reviewing and workshopping to help pay the bills. Perhaps the web can enhance their overall earnings even if the cash earned from downloads doesn't add up to much.

Between publisher and author the literature organisations could be playing a real role in encouraging experimentation, but they need to be quick about it.

THE NEXT IF:BOOK GROUP will be at Jackson's Lane, the newly refurbished arts and community centre directly opposite Highgate Tube (Northern Line), on Tuesday 14th October, 6.00 - 8.00 pm, where we'd like people to come along with ideas for digital things they'd like to make happen - books, games, publishing ventures, literature organisations that are born digital and re-thought for NOW.

If you're interested, email me pronto at chris@futureofthebook.org.uk.

Sorry if North London is inconvenient for some, but to be honest I'm keen to find some people interested in all this who live near me!

Monday, 8 September 2008

a body of work

I came across this beautiful alphabet on the web somewhere and now can't find it again to be able to credit its maker, but will keep trying. People make words out of whatever they have at hand - their mouths and their bodies if nothing else is about.
Tonight at the if:bookgroup we discuss whether this Is Really It, ie. the moment when the reading public begins to enjoy reading off e-Readers, iPhones eTcetera. Although I'm looking forward to getting my Sony thingy through the post and love my iTouch, I'm really only slightly interested in the gizmos, far more in where words go next as they lift off the page.

Friday, 5 September 2008


I ordered my Sony Reader from Waterstones today and can't wait to get my hands on it.

Meanwhile I've downloaded three different readerthings from the iTunes apps store: eReader, Stanza and Bookshelf which allow you to download from Gutenberg etc, plus a few of the stand alone books, which each have their strengths and weaknesses. On the iPhone you get backlighting and colour and the potential to link text to images and video in the way I've been experimenting with in In Search of Lost Tim. The backlight makes it perfect for reading after lights out (though it's also tempting to listen to podcasts, listen to weird niche radio stations or watch BBC comedies instead, and what does THAT do to my already insomniacal tendencies!!?) I'm hoping the Reader will be more soothing. Is that the post-digital definition of a Real Book: something that helps you to fall asleep reading it?

Thursday, 4 September 2008

i n v i s i b l e b o o k s

Visit the Invisible Library to find an alphabetic collection of imaginary books which feature in other books. What a splendid resource and how truly internetesque.

read:write - an autumn provocation

READ:WRITE, if:book's research report for Arts Council England into the digital possibilities for literature suggests that those organisations funded to promote books and reading need to seize the time now that so many digital means arise to reach out to new writers and readers.

Literature development agencies came into existence to open up access to books for those who felt excluded from them. Now the web opens up extraordinary opportunities to reach new communities and encourage participation. Meanwhile too many still think of their website as a static electronic leaflet for their 'real' work, assume new media is something only of interest to 'yoof', a means to cajole those who don't like books at all really to at least take a peek at them, and are not aware enough of the explosion of web-based activity which intersects with theirs. Having in the past sought public subsidy to open up the canon to new readers and writers, new arguments are needed to secure future funding now that everyone can publish their words and download the (out of copyright) classics for free from their laptops.

Meanwhile those who work for literature organisations have the skills potentially to be fantastic curators, bringing together makers and consumers of literature and recording their conversations in ways that are compelling and inspiring. Festivals, writers' residencies and community projects can capture their work and the activity around it to create new kinds of artworks for digital times.

READ:WRITE includes plenty of exciting examples of good things going on, but poses challenging questions too. if:book believes this urgently needs debate, wants to see a flexible and effective means to provide training, and a strong network to give support and advice to organisations grappling with the practical, technical and personal issues that arise as organisations try to embed the web at the heart of their practice. Tell us what you think.

green screen reading

Here's an interesting link found on TeleRead by the tireless Twitterer Mr Furtado about a prototype for a solar powered e-book reader to help us read the world and save the planet.

"Snippy is an ultraportable handheld electronic viewer for textual and graphic information which harvests operating energy from the sun and transparently links to other Snippys in the area to share content. This solar networked information propagating paper-like display brings together the daylight readability and extremely low average power consumption of an electronic paper display, a solar panel to gather energy from light, and a Bluetooth radio interface.'

second reading

Random House has announced that it is hosting a virtual exhibition about e-books and e-book readers in social networking site Second Life to coincide with the launch of the Sony Reader.

Kicking off today at Random House's virtual building on the Elysian Island it will feature a video of Paper Trails author Mandy Haggith, a message board for visitors where they can leave feedback and a competition to win the Sony device. New content and features will be added throughout the autumn.

"The exhibition will provide visitors with information and user feedback about the new reading devices and e-book formats available, and allows us to target an early-adopter audience with our own exciting e-book lists," said Fionnuala Duggan, director of Random House Group Digital.

The if:book group meets at the first life Random House on Monday - it's fully booked but we're planning a follow-up on 14th Oct. Details of the venue to be confirmed soon, but we can reveal now that it will probably take place in boring old reality.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

authomatic writing

The Harper Collins Authonomy site goes public today after a trial phase. Like www.youwriteon.com, it's a place where you can submit work and get it judged by peers, but in the knowledge that Harper Collins are looking in on the hunt for talent. There's something magical about this digital means to create a slush pile that sifts itself, bringing perhaps not the best but certainly the most notable to the top. Take a look and see what you think.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

what - another event!?

What is a Book?

Claire Malcolm, Richard Gameson, Chris Meade and Fiona Gameson.

Panel discussion and Q&A

Claire Malcolm, Director of New Writing North, leads a discussion on the book, with contributions from Richard Gameson, Head of Medieval & Renaissance Studies at Durham University, Dr Fiona Gameson, an expert on non-print book forms, and Chris Meade, from Future of the Book.

Saturday 19th October, 2pm

Cosin's Room, Palace Green Library

Tickets £4/£3 conc (available from the Gala box office on 0191 332 4041)

For more details go to http://www.bookfestival.org.uk/festival-programme/fringe/

Monday, 1 September 2008

in search of lost tim

Proboscis, the organisation which describes itself as being "pioneers of pie in the sky", kindly asked me to select a text for their Small Works range of booklets which can be printed out from the web and niftily folded into a staple-less pamphlet (which they call an "e-book").
I chose the amazing opening 'Overture'of Remembrance of Things Past which was on my mind partly because I nicked the other translation of Proust's title for my not remotely Proustian 'magical musical graphical digital fiction' In Search of Lost Tim which I've just completed for my M.A. and now, with some trepidation, launch softly into the wider world.